The Power of Unacknowledged Relationship Problems

Benny left his wife after twelve years of marriage.

It wasn’t an easy decision and, according to Benny, he knew at some level that something wasn’t right about midway through the marriage, but he “hung in there” because of his “commitment to make it work.” But unfortunately, this “commitment” was more lip-service than genuine effort, since it didn’t lead Benny to honestly and openly deal with the relationship issues he found troubling. Instead, he saw himself as a martyr, enduring an unsatisfying relationship yet showing up every day as a husband who honors his commitments. However, he didn’t earnestly examine his feelings and instead heavily relied on avoidance and denial. In essence, he was living a type of charade.

Avoidance helped Benny turn the intolerable into something he could tolerate (at least for a while).

It isn’t easy to hang onto a relationship despite the gnawing sense that something vital is missing. And often we need to rely on our psychological defenses to get by. One way to accomplish this is to psychically contort ourselves in order to exist between the space of knowing (that something is wrong) and not knowing (denying the knowledge that something is wrong). This in-between space, an experience of sort of knowing, acts as a buffer to the pain of knowing head-on.

How can we know and not know at the same time? The mind is very complex and very astute at creating such a paradox.

The mind is also effective at mitigating pain by denying the significance of certain marital or relationship issues. Couples frequently turn away from the very marital issues that cause them pain—rather than face these issues, this avoidance gives a temporary respite, a brief time-out that couples choose even when the long-term consequences of such an approach ends up magnifying the unacknowledged issues.

The process of avoiding troubling relationship issues is different than making a conscious effort to focus on the positives that may exist in your marriage or relationship. You can make deliberate efforts to highlight what is working while also acknowledging the trouble spots that need attention. In fact, this balanced approach (focusing on both the positive aspects of your union while addressing relationship problems head-on as they arise) is a strategy I frequently encourage couples to adopt. Ongoing asymmetry toward either the positive (at the exclusion of examining problems as they arise) or the negative (at the exclusion of what is in fact working well), comes with certain risks.

The Power of Unacknowledged Relationship Problems

Relationship issues are frequently sidestepped because of our tendency to keep unpleasant experiences at bay. This is what Benny did for half of his marriage. He sort of knew something was wrong and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) look at this fact directly. When asked to reflect upon this pattern of avoidance, he shared the following:

“I have a high threshold for pain [emotional or otherwise], so at first I knew something wasn’t working, but I was able to rationalize to myself that it wasn’t a big deal, or that every marriage feels that way. I kept reminding myself that no relationship is perfect and that I should just grin and bear it. But I think the more relevant issue for me was that at some level I knew that if I looked directly at the problem, I would know that there was no turning back. It would become too clear: I married the wrong person for the wrong reasons.”

In Benny’s description you can see that on some psychological level he knew there was a problem, a really major problem, while also being able to squeeze this painful reality out of his awareness through rationalization and avoidance. This allowed him to go on as if everything was fine, even when the whispers of distress called to him.

Avoidance (a common psychological defense) occurs at different levels: Once the problem is identified—even in a shadowy way—we then keep the problem out of conscious awareness so that we don’t experience pain; and we then need to keep the issue from entering into the conversational space with our partner or spouse. Have you ever noticed how much more real something feels when you discuss it with someone else, even something that felt hazy and nebulous before the discussion? This truism is behind the second level of avoidance, trying to make sure that your partner doesn’t notice the uncomfortable thing you’re noticing.

“Of course I never uttered a word about it to Carol-Ann,” Benny said emphatically. “What would’ve been the point of that? She seemed perfectly happy.” While Benny might have been telling himself that his reluctance to share his feelings of distress was motivated by the desire to keep his wife happy, what was more likely at the root of that silence was his need to avoid his own buried knowledge that something was wrong in the relationship.

Some relationship issues feel too daunting to face down—in these instances the implication of looking at what is denied feels too overwhelming, especially when significant emotional and/or practical upheaval is anticipated.

Keeping the Relationship Problem at Bay

To avoid a marital or relationship problem in this way, the problem needs to remain somewhat unarticulated—to oneself and between partners. This is an emotional juggling act, since energy must be spent to psychically strip the troubling relationship issue of its clarity and shape, and ultimately, its strength to summon our attention. To accomplish this feat, your psychic defenses work to scramble your experience of the troubling issue, morphing it into a vague, shadowy presence that settles into the recesses of your mind. Needless to say, this may take away the pain in the short run, but it isn’t good for the relationship overall.

This is what Benny did, and by the time he allowed the avoided issues fully into his awareness, he was already convinced that his marriage was doomed—that he was with the wrong person. And maybe he was. But avoiding issues for extended periods of time because they are deemed intractable only adds toxic fuel onto what is already smoldering.

This type of avoidance takes our power away to induce meaningful relationship change (if such change is at all possible) and it gives the avoided issues increasing power and influence over us from behind the curtain of awareness. By the time Benny took the issue out of hiding, he was convinced of its inevitability, and by the time he took the issue to his wife, he had already made up his mind to leave. He did not view Carol-Ann as someone who could change (and did not see the two of them as being able to positively change the relationship), but rather imagined a life of meaningless togetherness whether he dealt with his concerns head-on or kept them hidden from himself and his partner.

Relationship and marital issues come in all shapes and sizes. Not every issue needs addressing. It is possible to over-analyze your relationship to the point of diluting all the life and vitality out of it. The other extreme is to avoid important issues, keeping them unacknowledged out of fear of upsetting the status quo or because you believe no positive change is possible.

If avoidance is becoming a familiar presence in your relationship landscape, it might be time to change this potentially destructive pattern for the good of your relationship, as well as for the good of you and your partner.

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